Tuesday, 26 Jul, 2011 Offbeat

The Most Important Inventions of Ancient China


China was the land of numerous inventions that played an important role not only for the Chinese but for the rest of the world as well. The Four Great Inventions of ancient China include papermaking, the compass, gunpowder, and printing.

Chinese were able to develop technologies that required knowledge in numerous fields including mechanics, hydraulics, mathematics, horology, astronomy, agriculture, engineering, craftsmanship, nautics, and warfare. Find out which inventions created in ancient China are considered to be some of the most important.


Quite often when we think of pasta we associate it with Italy. However, the Chinese were the first who invented noodles. In fact noodles have been popular in China for over 4,000 years (according to the latest archeological data). The oldest example of pasta (in the picture) was discovered in Qinghai province.

It is worth mentioning that the discovered 4000-year-old noodles were made using the fast-growing cereal plant foxtail millet (the most important planted species in East Asia) and proso millet.

Historians say that the Arabs used pasta or noodle-like food for long trips in the fifth century. They were the ones to bring the food to Sicily when they invaded the region back in the 8th century.

When the early European explorers reach China they also learned about the nutritious value of noodles and decided to bring the recipe to European cooks.


Just like the first noodles, this invention has a long history, being created about 4,000 years ago. It would be interesting to note that this material is made from the silkworm moth's cocoon, which is dropped into boiling water and then silk thread can be unwound.

A Chinese legend says that the first silk thread was created when a cocoon accidentally fell into the hot tea of Si-Ling-Chi, a Chinese Empress and the wife of Emperor Huang-ti. She found that the threads of the cocoon were uncoiling and decided later to experiment with silkworms. In 2400 B.C. she managed to come up with the way of using silk in weaving.

Silk turned out to be very important to the economy of China and people kept its secret for thousands of years and the Great Wall of China helped them to do so.

The Silk Road helped the Chinese to trade their valuable silk fabric to other nations. Japan was able to obtain the secrets of raising silkworms and silk manufacturing in the 3rd century.

Great Wall of China

This is one of the seven famous wonders of the world, representing a series of fortifications made initially of stone, earth and later of bricks. It was erected in 221 BC with the goal of protecting the northern borders of the country from different nomadic groups that invaded the Chinese Empire. By that time the Chinese already possessed the techniques of wall-building. However, the first materials used were rammed earth, stones, and wood.

During the Ming Dynasty (from 368 to 1644), people started using bricks in a lot of areas of the wall. They also used tiles, lime, and stone.

The Great Wall extends from Shanhaiguan located in the east, to Lop Lake found in the west. It roughly defines the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. With the help of advanced technologies, researchers were able to conclude that the wonder with all of its branches extend to a distance of 8,851.8 kilometers (5,500.3 miles). It has been estimated that more than a million of workers died during the construction process and some of them were buried among the bricks of the wall.

A very important aspect of the wall was communication between the army units. To be able to call for reinforcements and signal of enemy movements, it was decided to build signal towers. The latter were placed on different high points along the wall so they could be clearly seen.

The Great Wall is the world's largest construction and the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. Today tourists can visit some parts of the wall that were renovated by the Chinese government.

Compass - One of the Four Greatest Inventions

The first magnetic compass was invented in China probably during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). Lodestone, a naturally magnetized mineral composed of iron oxide, was initially used by fortune tellers in ancient China to make their fortune telling boards.

Later someone noticed that lodestones can be used to point out real directions, which led to the creation of the first compasses, which were designed on a square piece with markings made to illustrate the cardinal points and the constellations. The pointing needle back then was a spoon-shaped device made of the same mineral, featuring a handle that would always indicate south.

In the 8th century, Chinese inventors came up with a magnetized needle that replaced the spoon-shaped lodestones. Starting with the year 850, magnetized needles were commonly used as navigational devices on ships.

Zheng He from the Yunnan province in China was the first to use the compass as a navigational tool. In the period between 1405 and 1433 he managed to carry out seven ocean trips. The compass came to India, the Middle East and Europe as a result of the formation of the Mongol Empire by Genghis Khan. He got rid of all national barriers within the empire and facilitated the transportation of intellectual knowledge from China.


Being quite popular nowadays, umbrella was in fact invented thousands of years ago and its main purpose was to shade its user from the sun. This invention was widely used 4,000 years ago in Assyria, China, Egypt, and Greece but China is where the first umbrella was created.

According to the first written records in which umbrella was mentioned, back in the year 21, Wang Mang, a Han Dynasty official, featured an umbrella developed for a ceremonial four-wheeled carriage.

Fu Qian, a commentator who lived in the 2nd century, mentioned that the umbrella used on of Wang Mang's carriage boasted bendable joints, being able to extend or retract. Some specialists claim that the first umbrella was made by attaching large leaves to bough-like ribs.

The character that in Chinese means "umbrella" actually resembles one. The original design of a Chinese umbrella was brought to Japan through Korea. The Silk Road brought the invention to Persia and the Western countries.

To see how umbrellas looked like thousands of years ago, look at temples in these countries - umbrellas in their original design can be seen even today.

Papermaking, Printing - Two of the Four Greatest Inventions

The Chinese were also the first to come up with the printed word. In 105, an inventor known as Ts'ai Lun was able to come up with the process of manufacturing paper, which was far more superior to baked clay, papyrus and parchment, which were widely used in other regions of the world.

A few centuries later, in 593, the Chinese invented the first printing press and as a result the world's first printed newspaper appeared. It was released in Beijing in 700 and represented a woodblock printing.

In 868, China release the earliest known printed book which included illustrations and was called Diamond Sutra. Later, in 1041, the Pi Sheng created the movable type technology, a system of printing that makes use of movable parts to replicate the elements of a document. His technology involved the use of Chinese porcelain.

The next century, in 1155, another Chinese inventor Liu Ching created the first printed map. All of these inventions had an enormous influence on the educational, political and literary development around the globe.


Porcelain is believed to have its origins in China, being manufactured during the Tang Dynasty and then exported to the Islamic world, where the material was a luxury. Some claim that the person who invented porcelain was Tao-Yue. The inventor made use of kaolin (also known as white clay) which he discovered along the Yangzte River, near his birthplace.

By mixing other types of clay Tao-Yue managed to create the world's first white porcelain. During the Song Dynasty (from 960 to 1279) porcelain went through a series of improvements, being mixed with quartz and feldspar.

The mix allowed products made of porcelain to so very thin (in fact much thinner than materials made of clay), and thus semi-transparent. Because of its white color, artists were able to paint on it. It is worth mentioning that products made of porcelain turned out to be some of the most highly prized goods in the country.

The European market managed to appreciate Chinese porcelain during the Ming Dynasty (from 1368 to 1644), when the most famous Chinese porcelain art styles reached the old continent.

Mechanical Clock

Mechanical clock was probably one of the most important inventions made in the medieval world. The idea was to figure out a technology in which a wheel the size of a room could turn at a speed close to the speed of the Earth, but with a turning that is more or less continuously. If such technology was built then the wheel would become a small model of our planet.

It would be interesting to note that accurate mechanical clocks were created in ancient China because of the importance of calculating the moment when a royal child was conceived. Ancient researchers decided to devote their time and effort to creating accurate timing devices that would tell the exact time when a royal child was conceived. The West borrowed the Chinese mechanisms and made several changes to suit other goals.

The first example of a mechanical clock was created in 725 by Yi Xing, a Buddhist monk, astronomer, mathematician and mechanical engineer who lived during the Tang Dynasty (from 618 to 907). He managed to come up with a celestial globe that had a clockwork escapement mechanism.

His clock worked by dripping water that activated a wheel. One full revolution of the wheel was equal to 24 hours. More information is available here and here.

Paper Money

Invented somewhere in the 7th century in China during the Tang Dynasty, paper money was initially called "flying money" due to the fact that they were very light and could be easily blown out of someone's hand.

It would be interesting to note that the first paper money was more a draft rather than actual money. Chinese merchants could deposit their actual money and receive a paper certificate which could later be exchanged for cash in the provinces. Thus they were able to avoid using large amounts of coins (which were also rather heavy) during their transactions. This is how it worked: a merchant could leave his coins with a trustworthy person, and receive a piece of paper where it was written exactly the amount of money he had with that person. Any time the paper could be exchanged back to real money.

In 812 this practice was rather quickly adopted by the government and used for the forwarding of local taxes.

Chinese people were also able to use exchange certificates. The latter were issued by the government officials and could be exchanged for salt or tea.

After the Mongols took power in China, they decide to issue a somewhat original form of paper money entitled "silk notes". These could've been obtained after depositing bundles of silk yarn. At that time people were asked to cash in all of the old paper money and receive silk notes instead. The Mongols even managed to spread their currency beyond the borders of Chinese Empire. In 1294 these notes could be spotted even in Persia.

Gunpowder - One of the Four Greatest Inventions

Invented in China somewhere in the 10th century, the gunpowder was initially used to manufacture fireworks and signal flares. Composed of 75 percent potassium nitrate, 15 percent powdered charcoal, and 10 percent sulfur, it was also used in medicine and alchemy.

After a while the Chinese decided to use gunpowder to make weapons. The invention of gunpowder helped the Chinese create land mines, naval mines, hand cannons, exploding cannonballs, multistage rocket, and rocket bombs equipped with aerodynamic wings.

The process of creating fire rockets involved the loading of capped bamboo tubes with gunpowder and iron bits. Fire rockets were then attached to arrows and used against the Mongols during their attack on the Chinese city fortifications.

Nevertheless Mongols managed to conquer China and found the Yuan Dynasty. Afterwards they used the Chinese invention to make their own weapons which they used to invade Japan.

From Chinese the word "gunpowder" is literally translated as "Fire Medicine", which refers to "Fire Chemicals" or "Fire Powder".

The possible first reference to the use of gunpowder was spotted in the passage of the Zhenyuan miaodao yaolüe, a Taoist text that dates back to the middle of the 9th century. The text mentioned some people who have heated a mix composed of sulfur, realgar, saltpeter and honey and as a result burned their hands, faces and even their houses.

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